Since its inception in 1985, NASCAR¿s version of an ¿all-star game¿ has evolved from a novelty to a showcase, a spring ritual of speed and daring resulting in yearly additions to the book of NASCAR lore.

This year, the event (formerly known as The Winston) has a new name for its 20th running: The ¿NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge.¿ On May 22, it returns to Lowe¿s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. for the 18th consecutive year, once again featuring an exclusive field of 2003-04 race winners and past champions of the event, which will be televised live on FX (7 p.m. ET). The NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge events will have a total purse of $4,095,000, an increase of $225,000 from the previous year. The winner will receive $1 million.

A total of 18 drivers already have qualified, and the talent-laden group is led by defending champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe¿s Chevrolet), who offered a perfect summation:

¿This is a very prestigious event ¿ with some fun involved,¿ Johnson said.

Also involved, for the first time: Nextel Communications.

"The NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge is a marquee event for Nextel," said Michael Robichaud, senior director of sports and entertainment marketing for Nextel, the title sponsor of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. "It has been one of the most exciting events on the schedule since its inception because drivers aren¿t competing for points ¿ they race for pride and a check for $1 million. That format has created some of the sport¿s greatest moments, which has made it a favorite for both drivers and fans. Our focus is to create an atmosphere that makes fans feel more connected to this all-star event than ever before."

The NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge has been held at Lowe¿s Motor Speedway every year since its inception ¿ except for 1986, when it was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

¿No other all-star event in professional sports has produced the drama and excitement this event has for nearly two decades,¿ Lowe¿s Motor Speedway President H.A. ¿Humpy¿ Wheeler said. ¿Serving as the home venue for this event, we have worked hard to build equity and making the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge a real fan favorite. We have some things up our sleeve to make the 20th edition bigger and better than ever.¿

¿Through the years, this has become one of the obvious highlights of our season,¿ NASCAR Chief Operating Officer George Pyne said. ¿It is invariably exciting, and provides a perfect lead-in to one of our key NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series points events, the Coca-Cola 600, which is held in Concord the following week (May 30).¿

The NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge format¿s specifics follow. The NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge will have a minimum of 20 cars and drivers who meet one (or in some cases more) of the following criteria:

Drivers and car owners who have won races in either 2003 or 2004.

  • Active drivers who have won the championship of NASCAR¿s premier series.
  • Active NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers who have won the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge.
  • The winner of the NEXTEL Open, a two-segment (20 laps/10 laps) preliminary event for teams who have competed, but not won, during 2003 or 2004.

As for the racing itself, the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge will consist of three segments totaling 90 laps/135 miles around the 1.5-mile Lowe¿s Motor Speedway track. An initial 40-lap segment advances the top-20 finishers to the second segment. From that 30-lap sprint, the top 14 advance to the final segment, which is 20 laps. There also is the ¿x¿ factor to consider: A vote by fans will determine a random inversion (anywhere from three to 10 cars) of the starting order for the 20-lap finale.

Two races into the 2004 season, the following drivers have qualified:

  • Race winners: Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet), Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford), Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford), Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet), Ricky Craven (No. 32 Tide Chevrolet), Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie IRWIN Ford), Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe¿s Chevrolet), Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), Robby Gordon (No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet), Greg Biffle (No. 16 National Guard Ford), Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet), Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg¿s Chevrolet) and Bill Elliott (No. 91 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge).
  • Past series champion: Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge).
  • Past event champion: Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford).
  • Car owners: Joe/Rick Hendrick (No. 25 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet) and Ray Evernham (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge).

"The [all-star] event is always a big race for us,¿ said Johnson, last year¿s winner who went on the next week to capture the Coca-Cola 600. ¿It¿s just a fun event without as much pressure, but we still take it very seriously. I think the fans really like it because of that.¿